Scientific research has finally caught up with the lifework of my family. For three generations, we have been exploring, questioning, experimenting, passing along our findings from parent to child. We are not neuroscientists or psychologists, like those who have come after us. We are simply…nappers. A nap, where I come from, is sacred.
Sometimes, after large and indulgent family meals, we nap communally, sharing sofas head to foot, curled in chairs and sprawled, beside the dog and one another, on the floor. We firmly believe that no gathering can be deemed a success unless it culminates in every single person falling asleep in the living room.
Mostly, however, we understand the nap to be an endeavor embarked on alone, though often recounted later in every detail, like a Homeric epic tale, to eager listeners. My mother calls to tell me how pretty the light looked through the curtains when she came home from work. Of course, she had to sink into the couch and take a nap. My brother describes a snooze in his red chair with a book and Chester the cat. In the way that some people never suffer from a cold but always have a “terrible” cold, in the way that rain in California is never rain but “torrential” rain, naps for my family are never naps but “delicious” naps.
Oddly, the new scientific nap studies do not mention “delicious” naps. Their focus is on the practical use of these short bouts of sleep and the benefits they bestow on us, as if they were fiber-rich food. Scientists have found that naps make us more alert and more creative, improve our mood, and increase our productivity. Matthew Walker, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, was quoted by the New York Times as saying, “You need to sleep before learning, to prepare your brain, like a dry sponge, to absorb new information.”
Although my brain often feels like a dry sponge, the one you find under the kitchen sink, way back next to the jar of desiccated silver polish, I cannot endorse this utilitarian interpretation of the nap.
I am gratified to know that a Harvard Medical School study showed that a 45-minute nap improves learning and memory, and I am relieved to discover that a 26-minute nap in flight enhanced a pilot’s performance by 34 percent and overall alertness by 54 percent (his copilots manned the controls, so don’t worry). The biphasic sleep schedule (which involves taking a nap in addition to sleeping at night) may help us move information from the hippocampus to the prefrontal cortex, where it becomes part of our long-term memory.
This is all to the credit of the nap, which I am prepared to celebrate in every way possible. But where, in these studies, is the joy? The romance? The cool, smooth surface of the white pillowcase? The light seeping gently through the white curtains? The slow inhalation of that clean, laundered scent? Where, indeed, in these studies, is the light itself?
A nap is not a nap without light. This is what distinguishes it from a good night’s sleep. A nap is a stolen moment, not the natural culmination of the day. A nap is secret, illicit. It is sleeping during the day, and the day must be present and visible. There must be light—ideally dappled in a garden or slanted through a window: soft and filtered and gentle. An afternoon sleep in a darkened room is not a nap, in my opinion. It is a migraine.
In fact, the best night’s sleep I ever had was on a trip to Norway, just near the Arctic Circle, in the summer. The sun never set, and I was able to “nap” all night.
Researchers suggest that naps are exceedingly effective in clearing our minds so we can fill them up again, and though I object to evaluating a nap solely in terms of its “effectiveness,” I would say that afternoons have the best napping light—when the sun seems to settle into a soft, deep repose. I don’t think a nice midmorning snooze should be devalued, however.
After a night of insomnia, after watching the milky pale light of dawn appear around the edges of the window shades, after hearing the chatter of sparrows, to get out of bed at last and have a cup of coffee and read the paper and feel blissfully alone, and then, like a punch to the head, be overcome with fatigue and stumble back to bed, where the sheets and the pillowcase have become especially cool and inviting—this is, without a doubt, one of life’s unforgettable pleasures.
Which brings me to another distinction researchers have not yet made: the city nap versus the country/suburban nap. When I’m in my apartment in New York City and about to take an afternoon nap, I usually turn on the air conditioner. This muffles the world outside in a way that, as far as I’m concerned, is not necessary in a morning nap that follows a sleepless night but is extremely pleasant in the afternoon. The young men generously sharing their booming music through open car windows, the gym class bouncing basketballs on their way to the park—all of this is part of the city I love, but not part of a nap.
Outside the city, however, the window stays open. The sound of a distant dog barking, of a crow calling harshly from a high branch or a finch singing from a telephone pole, the wind rustling the leaves—this is the stuff of naps.
When my eldest son was very small, he had trouble falling asleep at night. It turned out he was worried that he might not wake up. He has always been a thoughtful person, and in this association of sleep and death, he had joined a long tradition: the Bible, Shakespeare, the Romantic poets. There is something about the oblivion of sleep that reminds us of death—or at least what we think (or worry or, at times, even hope) death might be like. Naps are different: They are not weighted with the profound. Naps float, weightless and temporal, nature’s whims.
I was thrilled to read about the importance of naps in the formation of memory, and I’m grateful for the scientific work being done in this area. But thinking of that little boy pondering the inevitable and the unknowable, I was even more grateful for a family legacy that taught me, and allowed me to teach him, that not everything has to be useful, not everything has to lead to something more—that sometimes, for no reason and with no purpose, you can just curl up on the couch, feel the soft breeze, and drift into a soft, delicious sleep that leads to nowhere in particular, and back again.
About the Author
Cathleen Schine is the author of eight novels, including The New Yorkers ($23, amazon.com), The Love Letter ($11, amazon.com), Rameau’s Niece ($23, amazon.com), and, most recently, The Three Weissmanns of Westport ($16, amazon.com). She lives in New York City and Venice, California.